Presiding Bishop's Sermon on Feast of Polycarp at Consortium of Endowed Parishes

Presiding Bishop's Sermon on Feast of Polycarp at Consortium of Endowed Parishes

St. Michael and St. George, St. Louis
February 23, 2008

When was the last time you were called on to confess your faith? Some of you were lamenting the challenge of that when we talked yesterday morning.


Well, today we’re celebrating the feast of a confessor. Polycarp is not exactly a household word, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more fitting this synchronicity seems as a closing to this gathering of endowed Episcopal Parishes. Polycarp was a bishop and martyr in the second century. He was Bishop of Smyrna, now called Izmir, in Turkey. His name means many-fruited, and his life was long and indeed abundantly fruitful. He was put to death at the age of 86 during one of the early persecutions.


There are various stories told of his martyrdom, but the basic thread is that he refused to repudiate Jesus Christ and, while the crowd called for him to be thrown to the beasts, his executioner burned him at the stake instead – apparently to be more merciful. One version of the story says that his body was not burned, instead being baked like a loaf of bread. And in another variation, the executioner, seeing that he was not dying, reached into the fire, and stabbed him in the heart. Obviously the story was told over and over again, and the fruitfulness of his life only expanded as it gave others courage to continue to follow the way of Jesus.


I am struck by a theme that these variations reflect. The collect and the reading from Esdras both explicitly speak of confessing. “You gave boldness to Polycarp to confess Jesus Christ as King and savior” and Esdras, “these are the ones who have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God.” Confession and fruitfulness – how are they connected?


Confession has two usual meanings in English; to admit a wrong that’s been done, or to claim a relationship. Both of those meanings, in our tradition, are based in a relationship with the God who will not let us go – as Craig Dykstra said to us yesterday, in the buoyancy that will not abandon us to the grave. We admit our fault in full confidence that it will be forgiven. We acknowledge our relationship in full confidence that it will endure and surpass any earthly limit, even death. Confess and confidence – both have their roots “with faith.”


Where do you and I put our confidence? Or where do we see confidence placed as we look at the communities in which we live?


Con(fidence) games, get rich quick schemes, lotteries – most of us know the destruction that can come when faith is misplaced. All of the financial misconduct I saw in Nevada had connections to gambling addictions.


Do we put our faith in insurance, in banks, or the stock market? Yes, on occasion, but we do well not to put all our eggs in any of those baskets. This very organization owes its continued existence – and thriving – to a wise and judicious placing of trust in a variety of financial instruments. This organization is planning a future based on investing, putting faith in, new and creative mission initiatives.


Do we put our faith in justice? The systems of justice is this country are pretty good, but the very fact that prisoners are continually being set free on submission of better evidence tells us those systems are far from perfect. Yet the justice here is reasonably dependable. Some observers have pointed to the various ways in which civil justice does and does not obtain in different parts of the Anglican Communion, and how that affects the role of the church in those societies. Desmond Tutu had a rather different role in ensuring justice in his country than church leaders here normally do. Yet the members of this church also carry a responsibility to see that trust can appropriately be placed in the justice mechanisms of this country, and that civil justice is equally available to all God’s children.


Do we put our trust in expecting that higher education brings a higher standard of living? Almost everyone sitting here does. Do we put our trust in the political processes of this country? Or in its leaders? We are right now engaged in our every-four-year exercise of fidelity – who is the most worthy of our trust?


Many of us put our trust in a person with whom we share our lives. Yet we all know instances where that trust has been misplaced, or broken.


What do we confess? Even in the limited and finite examples of persons and institutions where we put our trust, we have a larger hope. We live in the expectation that God will redeem that brokenness and limitation. When a marriage fails, as a community we work to support the two former partners, in the expectation that each can experience resurrection. When a parish experiences the misconduct and betrayal of its leader(s), we still move forward, calling for accountability, healing, and a form of reconciliation that can bring new life to all parties. I was part of a creative discussion this morning about how congregations burdened by aging buildings might put their trust in a different future. You and I are here because we put our trust and faith in the eternal possibility of new life.


The work of this consortium in some sense rests on death. You receive gifts as bequests, and as legacies, in the hope and expectation that that dead gold and those inanimate checks can bring forth life. “You, O God, can make these stones live, if your breath will only come upon them.”


This conference, and the vision of these leaders, invites us all to die – in order that new life might be brought forth. Maybe that’s why Polycarp’s story is told so many different ways – we have to be willing to die in ways that smell as sweet as new-baked bread, and in ways as gory as spilling all our blood. Yes, we too, become the dying and rising body of Christ. We have to begin by recognizing that we really will die, even if it’s in our own beds. Bob Johansen yesterday pointed out that many in the boomer generation haven’t accepted that reality – and, indeed, refuse to accept it.


Looking into the future, and confessing our faith in the power of the resurrection, is going to require us to die to all of our favorite ways of seeing the world. It’s going to mean we can’t give our full trust and faith to limited and limiting ways of engaging God’s creation. Jesus is going with us to the tomb, but he’s going to call us out the other side as well – and then we will sit on his right and his left. Although I don’t think we’re going to have much opportunity to sit around and enjoy it – he’s going to send us out to build houses in New Orleans, and dig wells in Haiti, and train pastors in Indiana, and feed the hungry in Botswana. And in all of it, to confess that yes, we’re up to this work because we understand and give our hearts and faith to the reality of resurrection.

Share This: